By James Brooks
The Alaska House of Representatives elected Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, as speaker of the House, putting a predominantly Republican coalition in charge of the body.
The new majority flips control of the House from the predominantly Democratic coalition that has controlled it since 2017 and means that conservative priorities stalled for the past six years will have better odds of becoming law.
House lawmakers had been deadlocked, but the four-member Bush Caucus, a group of two independents and two Democrats who represent rural Alaska, agreed to back the House’s 19-member Republican caucus, creating the coalition that will now be in charge of the House.
“This is a very overwhelmingly happy day,” said Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton.
Tilton, speaking after she was selected in a 26-14 vote, said the majority’s top priority is a state fiscal plan.
“I think that we can all agree that a priority of this session is to deal with the fiscal stability of the state of Alaska. That is probably the No. 1 issue that we’ll be working on,” she said.
Before Wednesday’s vote, members of the new majority had introduced legislation on a variety of topics, including limits on school sports for transgender students and the elimination of the state’s new ranked choice voting system, to name just two controversial issues.
The state Senate is led by a coalition in which nine of the 17 members are Democrats and has pledged to table controversial legislation. But the new House majority could ensure those issues receive a hearing. For the past six years, they’ve been denied that in the House.
The names of committee chairs, who will dictate the flow of legislation, were not announced Wednesday and will be decided Thursday morning, lawmakers said.
Wednesday’s vote came on the second day of the 33rd Alaska State Legislature. It was the third consecutive time the House was unable to agree on a speaker before (or on) the first day of the first legislative session of a two-year legislature.
In 2019, legislators needed 31 days to choose a leader. Two years ago, they needed 22 days.
Wednesday’s agreement was comparatively quick and came after overnight discussions, multiple lawmakers said.
Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, said he learned about 20 minutes before Wednesday’s floor session that Tilton had enough votes. He voted for her.
The size of the new majority won’t be clear until later this week at the earliest. Wednesday’s vote to name her speaker didn’t indicate who would be in the majority, Tilton said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the new House coalition included 19 Republicans, two independents and two Democrats, she said. The non-Republican members are all members of the House’s Bush Caucus, which represents rural districts whose residents are mostly Alaska Native.
Though mostly Democratic, the Bush Caucus frequently joined urban Republicans in legislative majorities before the creation of the mostly Democratic coalition majority in 2017.
One key difference this time: In those prior majorities, Republicans had the majority even without the addition of the Bush Caucus. This time around, the majority exists because the Bush Caucus was willing to join a coalition.
That could give rural legislators leverage to advance local priorities, including improved infrastructure.
Other lawmakers may yet join the new coalition. Ortiz said he is interested in joining, as did Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak.
For the past two years, Stutes has been speaker of the House for the predominantly Democratic coalition. Though nominated for a second term on Wednesday — Tilton was elected before a vote on Stutes’ nomination — Stutes said she isn’t disappointed by the result.
“I didn’t really have any persuasion to be speaker again. And everybody says, ‘I’m sorry, you didn’t make it.’ Well, that’s not a problem for me,” Stutes said. “Some of these positions, people think they’re tenured, and they’re not. I think it’s good to move them around.”
Though there are 21 Republicans in the 40-member House, she and Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, were excluded from the Republican caucus before Tilton’s election.
Eastman didn’t immediately respond to a text message asking whether he would seek to join the new majority.
Stutes said she would like to join and has talked to Tilton about it.
“I’m a Republican. I’ve always been a Republican,” she said.
Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, was one of the 26 votes in favor of Tilton for Speaker but was noncommittal about joining the new majority.
“The majority of people wanted to support a speaker, and so I said, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna work together with everybody.’ That’s where I’m coming from,” she said.